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Slasher-Horror as Art Film: Psycho, the Classic


Based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Robert Bloch, which was itself loosely based on the story of Wisconsin serial killer and cannibal Ed Gein, the 1960 film Psycho, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, was filmed in black & white, by a television crew, on a small budget, because Paramount had already rejected the project, claiming its subject matter was “too repulsive… and impossible” for film. Hitchcock, who had already optioned the novel, then financed the film himself. According to film critic Roger Ebert, Psycho (1960) “remains the most effective slashing in movie history, suggesting that … artistry [is] more important than graphic details.” Because Hitchcock was answerable to no one but himself, he succeeded in creating one of the greatest psychological horror films ever made. At the same time, he created an art film classic.

Janet Leigh as Marion, and John Gavin as Sam, Psycho © Universal

The story begins as if it were a crime mystery. Marion (Janet Leigh) is having an affair with Sam (John Gavin), and she is distressed that they cannot marry because of his debts. Later that afternoon, when she returns to work, Marion is asked to take a substantial cash deposit of $40K to the bank. Instead, Marion absconds with the money, hoping to use it so she and Sam run away together.

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, Psycho © Universal

That night, in a thunderstorm, Marion stays at an isolated and mostly unoccupied motel, managed by a young man named Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Though handsome, Norman is gawky, and he has an odd hobby: taxidermy. The room where he serves Marion dinner is filled with dead and stuffed birds of prey.

From the spooky house overlooking the motel, Norman’s mentally ill mother can be heard berating him, and this elicits Marion’s sympathy for him. It also makes her re-evaluate her own crime, which would hurt not only her employer but his client as well. Marion takes a shower, symbolically cleansing herself of her evil intentions since she has apparently decided to return the stolen cash, when…

The famous shower scene, with Janet Leigh, Psycho © Universal

You may or may not know about the most famous shower scene in all of cinematic history, but the rest of the story becomes an intense murder mystery as the audience’s sympathy is shifted from impulsive criminal Marion to horrified son Norman as he desperately attempts to protect his dangerous mother.

Anthony Perkins as Norman, Psycho © Universal

In a move that, even now, is considered outrageously audacious, Hitchcock directs the film’s viewing audience as much as he did its actors: about a third of the way into the film, he takes all the viewers’ attention away from the ostensible protagonist — played by the film’s star power, Janet Leigh — and focuses the story on the newly introduced Norman. “I was directing the viewers,” [Hitchcock] told [fellow director] Truffaut in their book-length interview. “You might say I was playing them, like an organ.”

Martin Balsam as Detective Arbogast, Psycho © Universal

As Norman is feverishly working to protect his violent mother from discovery, Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) is desperately worried about Marion, who has disappeared. While asking Marion’s lover Sam about her whereabouts, the pair is approached by a detective (Martin Balsam), who has been hired to retrieve the stolen money. Sam and Lila encourage the detective to search for Marion, confident that some mistake has been made concerning the missing funds, which they assume Marion will be able to explain.

Vera Miles as Lila, John Gavin as Sam, and Anthony Perkins as Norman, Psycho © Universal

When the detective fails to contact them as arranged, Sam and Lila decide that they must investigate the mysterious happenings surrounding the isolated motel themselves…

Vera Miles, Psycho © Universal

Even if that means they must break into the spooky old house where Norman’s mother is obviously keeping watch over everything that happens down at the motel.

Nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actress for Janet Leigh, and Best Director for Hitchcock, Psycho is considered one of Hitchcock’s best films. Marred only by the final scene with the psychiatrist — which appears before the classic finale with Norman and his mother — Psycho is a classic thriller, with enough realistic spookiness to keep you up at night.

Available for rent ($2.99/3.99 SD/HD) or purchase (about $6.99) from Amazon, YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, and GooglePlay.

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